Barber of C'ville: Staples looks back on hairy past

When Ken Staples started barbering back in 1956, a haircut cost 75 cents. Forty-seven years later, the same cut runs $11– a nearly 1,500 percent increase. But that's about all that has changed.

"It's exactly the same way it was in the '30s," says septuagenarian Staples, whose father, Albert, opened the first Staples' Barber Shop in downtown Charlottesville in 1923 and didn't retire until 1994, at the ripe old age of 96.

Though barbering might have been in his blood– Staples recalls sweeping out his father's shop as a child– it wasn't until he'd already put in a decade at the C&O Railroad that he finally heard the scissor-snapping call of the barber shop. After training at a barbering school, Staples joined his father, and for decades the two worked side by side.

Unlike some fathers and sons, Staples says he shared an unusually close relationship with his dad. "We just enjoyed each other's company," he says.

Today, Staples works side by side with a stable of relative newcomers. There's John Tucker, who's been snipping at Staples since October '61, Frank Sprouse, who joined the shop in '66, and James Schafer, who arrived in '67. Then there are the real newbies– Earl Putnam with 13 years at Staple's, Kevin Armstrong with four, and the "rookie," Bill Lanier, who joined the team just last year.

But while gray hair abounds both in and behind the chairs, Staples says barber shops are experiencing a rebirth.

"Twenty years ago," he says, "men were going to salons." Not so much anymore. The wait on a recent Saturday: nearly an hour. The all-male crowd sitting in the seats lining the walls of the shop ranged from toddling first-timers to grandfatherly types, and it's this diversity Staples enjoys so much.

And there's rising interest in the barbering trade, Staples says. He'd like to see barbering offered as a course at vocational schools everywhere, since the current training is lengthy (a full year) and expensive (several thousand dollars).

While cutting hair has been perhaps the most prominent part of Ken Staples' life, he's quick to point out that Charlottesville has been rich with other creative opportunities.

"I have a flair for show biz," says Staples, who, among many roles, has played Peter Pan and once dressed as Carol Channing to sing "Hello, Dolly." But, he adds, "I never had visions of grandeur, that Hollywood would grab me up." Singing, acting, and emceeing locally were "enough," he explains, though he's quick to add with a sly grin, "I wouldn't turn down an offer."

Though Staples says he's slowing down a little ("I can't sing as well as I used to, and I certainly can't move as fast as I used to") he has no plans for full retirement.

What keeps him clipping?

"The people," he says, nodding, "the people."


Age: 70

What brought you here? I was born here.

What's worst about living here? Traffic

Favorite hangout? Home

Most overrated virtue? Wish I knew

What would people be surprised to know about you? I don't like to get a haircut.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? To enjoy getting up early

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being one of the group that built the Vietnam Memorial in McIntire Park

What do people find most annoying about you? I don't know.

Whom do you admire? Dwight D. Eisenhower

Favorite book? I don't have one, but I do enjoy books on railroads.

What subject causes you to rant? Cell phones

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The advances in medical science

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? People never dress up.

What do you drive? '96 Jeep Cherokee

What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Dean Martin country

What's your next journey? To work

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? When I ran away with the circus. My father caught me.

What do you regret? Not spending more time with my family

Favorite comfort food? Chocolate candy

What's always in your refrigerator? Ice cream

Must-see TV? I wish I could find some.

Favorite cartoon? Peanuts

Describe a perfect day. A holiday– get up early, go out to breakfast, then come home and lounge around or maybe work in the yard.

Walter Mitty fantasy? Perform on Broadway

Who'd play you in the movie? Fred Astaire

Most embarrassing moment? I bought a new suit, went out to dinner, and the seat of my pants split.

Best advice you ever got? My grandfather said, "Keep your boot on the rock, lad."

Favorite bumper sticker? "If you can read this, you're too close."